A Time to Rethink

Faculty seek ways to make social justice an integral part of every course

Erin Seaton, who teaches future teachers, repeats the words of civil rights icon John Lewis: We may not have chosen the time, but the time has chosen us.

“We’re in a moment we can’t run away from,” says Seaton, a senior lecturer in the education department of the School of Arts and Sciences. “We can’t escape the conversation about race, racial identity, white supremacy, and how that impacts students and the classroom.”

As faculty across Tufts’ campuses prepared for the current semester, through a spring and summer that saw anguish over the killings of Black men and women and intensified protests against systemic racism, many found themselves searching for ways to reflect the quest for racial justice in their teaching. “Race is imbued in all aspects of our lives and experiences and can’t be left out of a single thing,” says Seaton.

In some departments, these concepts were already an integral part of the curriculum. “Issues of social justice and sustainability are woven into the DNA of a department like ours,” says Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning. “These crises are simply a confirmation of what we already knew.”

For others, the connections can be a little harder to tease out. “Where does [racial justice] fit in if you’re plugging numbers into an equation? How do you bring it into the classroom when there is no obvious on-ramp?” asks Associate Professor Sean Cash, who teaches the introductory statistics class at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “When you talk about racism, the biggest problem is not the bigot screaming obscenities from his front lawn,” says Cash—it’s the systemic racism beneath the surface. “It’s the same thing in the classroom—it’s not where the easy connections are, but where you have to squint to see where the connections are.”

Finding those connections won’t happen in a single semester. For teachers, it will involve self-reflection; listening; rethinking long-established syllabi or canonical sources; support from the university; and some trial and error. “This work is ongoing. There is no end,” says Ryan Rideau, associate director of Tufts’ Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT).

Anti-racist Teaching

In August, about 90 Tufts faculty logged on for a seminar on anti-racist teaching. “I’ve definitely seen an uptick in more people reaching out to me about anti-racist teaching, from a broad variety of disciplines and across the campuses,” Rideau says.

CELT has sponsored many programs specifically geared toward creating inclusive and equitable classrooms, as well as offered individual consulting on that subject. “The big thing is to integrate anti-racism and equity into all our programs, not just those explicitly that have those words in the title,” Rideau says.

That interest among faculty is mirrored by Tufts’ students. For about a decade, Agyeman has been teaching a course on food justice, which examines intersecting racial, economic, and environmental factors in the food system. Not surprisingly, for the fall 2020 semester, “it was well oversubscribed,” Agyeman says. “Students were scrambling to get in.”

But students aren’t just looking for individual classes—they want an educational experience that reflects anti-racist values, acknowledges varied perspectives, and examines deeply embedded biases across the curriculum. In Seaton’s introductory education course, for example, the subject of racial identity in the classroom used to be discussed several lectures into the term. “The students didn’t want to wait until halfway through the semester,” she says. The subject needed to be addressed from the start, so she reorganized the coursework.

“The students have pushed for this,” she says. “Students are much more willing at this moment to be brave and bold, thinking of how they can engage in conversations that may have felt unnerving before.”

What also emerges, she says, is the reality that beyond the actions or attitudes of any single individual is the need to confront structural bias in the foundations of higher education—and eliminate it.

“Out of this crisis has to be an opportunity,” says Seaton. “The idea is not to go back to the way things were, but to really think about what we teach.”

The Call for Unbiased Data

In the wake of the death of George Floyd in late May, the computer science department at the School of Engineering set up a suggestion box for student input on issues of inclusion and diversity, among other actions. Overwhelmingly, “students want more discussion of societal impact in their classes,” says Professor Kathleen Fisher, the department chair.

Consider databases. The biases of a society become memorialized in the type of data it collects, how that data is classified, and the uses that data is put to. Machine-learning programs, for example, “are only as good as the data they’ve been trained on,” Fisher says. So when a machine-learning algorithm—such as one designed to make recommendations on sentencing and parole, or to determine who gets a loan—uses biased data to predict outcomes, “you’re essentially codifying discriminatory data,” she says. 

Likewise, data is the foundation of Sean Cash’s statistics class at Friedman, required for students in three of the school’s master’s programs. “We look at data so we can understand the world around us,” he says. “And we can’t look at the whole world, so statistics give us a subset and we can make inferences and tell stories from that.”

But the same structural biases that pervade society persist in the data—how it’s collected, from whom, and how it’s used, Cash says. The populations excluded from the data collection are as important as those that are included.

For example, when biology lecturer Lauren Crowe discusses the human genome and what it means for scientific research in her cells and organisms class, she points out that “it’s really important to take a look at where the reference data comes from,” which is primarily people of European descent. “It’s predicated on a Eurocentric point of view,” she says, emphasizing the need to research diverse populations to make the data inclusive.

Traditionally, biology texts have been framed by “a bunch of historical experiments conducted by rich, white, cis-gendered men,” Crowe says. “Students with different backgrounds may not see themselves in science, and it decreases their sense of belonging. I try to bring in contributions of Black scientists, scientists of color, women scientists.”

Bio 13, which Crowe teaches in the fall, is an introductory course, one of the largest at the entire university with about 480 students. It serves as a gatekeeper of sorts for undergraduate students interested in pursuing careers in the health sciences or scientific and biomedical research. Along with teaching all the foundational concepts, Crowe considers it her job to convey inclusiveness, because even in a lecture course, it can have lasting effects.

“Anybody should be able to see themselves as part of the historic scientific timeline,” she says. “If a student takes my class and decides biology is not for them, I don’t want it to be because I did not make it accessible.”

Back to Top